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Knight star: Sir Hec Busby on his extraordinary life

Sir Hec Busby died on 11 May 2019.

Hekenukumai “Hec” Busby at his investiture at Waitangi. Photo/Clare de Lore/Listener

Northland kaumātua, master carver, navigator and bridge builder Hec Busby was hoping for “no fuss” when he accepted a knighthood. It was a forlorn hope, with at least a thousand people attending his investiture at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds.

Each year, thousands of people converge on the Bay of Islands to take part in, or observe, events commemorating the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. A crowd favourite on the day and centrepiece of waka displays is the beautifully carved Ngātokimatawhaorua. At 35m and requiring at least 80 paddlers, it is the biggest war canoe in the world. It was built for the 1940 centennial commemorations of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. But this year, waka kaitiaki Hekenukumai “Hec” Ngaiwi Puhipi Busby ordered that it stay on dry land. With a cloud hanging over funding for waka at the annual commemorations, Busby was aware that his knighthood investiture at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, two days before the Treaty-signing commemorations, would not only be a celebration, but also a chance to make a point and to put his concerns to the Prime Minister, who also holds the Arts and Culture portfolio.

Busby, of Te Rarawa and Ngāti Kahu iwi, was born in the small settlement of Pukepoto, near Kāitaia. His parents, Wini and Timoti, had six children, including Busby, and with other children from Wini’s first marriage and two adopted into the family, Busby had 11 siblings. It was a busy, hard-working, bilingual family. In Jeff Evans’ 2015 biography, Heke-nuku-mai-nga-iwi Busby: Not Here by Chance, Busby credits his grandmother, Raiha, who spoke little English, with the Busby children’s fluency in Māori.

School was of little interest to Busby, but trips to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, an hour-and-a-half bus ride from Pukepoto, were a highlight. The youngster would split off from his classmates and spend hours on his own admiring Ngātokimatawhaorua. He could not have imagined that in the decades to come, he would become its guardian, or kaitiaki.

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Busby left school at 15 and by his mid-twenties, with two of his brothers, had established a successful bridge-building business. At least 200 bridges throughout Northland would be built by the Busbys and most of them stand today. Waka remained a lifelong interest, but it wasn’t until he was in his fifties, as a passenger on one of the vessels, that he sailed out of sight of land for the first time.

The experience, and making connections with traditional voyagers from Hawaii, helped spur him to build Te Aurere, his first double-hulled ocean-going waka. Like Busby’s many other waka – he would carve at least another 30 over the decades, 10 of them in Hawaii – it was built using traditional methods such as rope lashings instead of nails.

Te Aurere is one of two double-hulled ocean-going waka carved by Busby. The other, Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti, was named in honour of his beloved second wife, Ngahiraka, known as Hilda, after her death.

Te Aurere made its maiden voyage in 1992, to Rarotonga and back, using celestial navigation. Busby chose others to captain Te Aurere on that journey and crewed on the support vessel. He has made many journeys on both his ocean-going waka since then.

Busby performing the wero on the Waitangi Treaty Grounds in the 1970s; delivering a whaikōrero in Kerikeri. Photo/Supplied

Busby married for the first time when he was 18. He and wife Kathleen had 10 children before the marriage ended. Busby recently marked 22 years since the death of Hilda. The couple met in 1973, and in the years that followed they were influential leaders in Northland life. Hilda was a social worker and also involved in the Māori Women’s Welfare League, kōhanga reo and kapa haka. Busby and Hilda were both active in organising Waitangi Day celebrations. He carved and built six marae in Northland and has held leadership positions on many Māori organisations.

Now 86, he is still deeply involved in developing waka culture. In December, the Kupe Waka Centre opened at Aurere on family land. It is a cultural centre developed in co-operation with the Ka’iwakīloumoku Hawaiian Cultural Center and will enable Busby and others to pass on their skills in carving, waka-building, sailing and navigation to succeeding generations. The connections throughout the Pacific are deep and long standing. Busby, and the men he acknowledges as fellow master navigators – Jack “Jacko” Thatcher, Piripi Evans, Stanley Conrad and Piripi Smith – all learnt traditional ocean navigation methods from Micronesian master navigator Pius “Mau” Piailug. Busby has built on his legacy – Piailug was the first to prove that their ancestors intentionally made two-way voyages across the oceans, steering by the sun, moon, stars, birds and other cues.

On Monday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was one of the supporters who escorted Busby to the Governor-General for his knighthood investiture ceremony. Never far from Busby’s side was his devoted stepdaughter, Gina Harding, and her brother, Charlie. Harding and her husband, Michael, live with and care for Busby at Aurere, overlooking Doubtless Bay. The Listener spoke to him just ahead of his big day. In preparation for his investiture, he and Gina Harding visited the Rangihaukaha urupā to pay their respects to loved ones.

Busby talks to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at his investiture after he ordered war canoe Ngātokimatawhaorua to stay on dry land for Waitangi Day. Photo/Clare de Lore/Listener

What would Hilda have thought about this honour you’ve received?

Hilda would have been very happy – she was part of everything I did. I knocked off school early and eventually became a bridge contractor. I was lucky that Hilda was around, as she did most of my writing. I was fortunate that she was around to do all that for me. I don’t like writing and, at that time, I would hear a lot of people talking, using big words and I didn’t understand what they meant. It is unfortunate that I never stayed on at school. Gina and I were up at the cemetery yesterday and spent an hour or so tidying up the long grass. Gina’s son, John, passed away three years ago, aged 45, so her mother and the mokopuna are there together. Nothing much a man can do, but we went up there and said a prayer.

You built waka Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti for Hilda, didn’t you?

Yes, Hilda and I went over to Easter Island, Rapa Nui, to look around and start preparing for a voyage there, but in the meantime she passed away. I decided that I would build a waka and name it after her so she could more or less complete what we started together. That trip to Easter Island, in 2012, was Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti’s maiden voyage, but she has also been down to the Chatham Islands, twice, with Jacko [Thatcher].

With wife Hilda. Photo/Busby family collection/Supplied

What’s going on in relation to the funding for waka participation in Waitangi Day commemorations?

I decided we would not launch Ngātokimatawhaorua and that I would take the chance, while the Prime Minister was here with us, to let her know what we are up against. We just can’t afford all the health and safety as well as housing and feeding the paddlers. The funding we get is not enough to feed a pussycat. Everyone comes to see the waka, but our crews pay for everything now – their travel, they bring their own tents, their own food. Shane Jones [MP, from Northland] has been good to us and donated a beast and some fish, but there are a lot of mouths to feed over many days. I knew I would have Jacinda’s attention during my investiture and I will tell her what’s going on. Let’s see if anyone takes notice and can help.

What are your best memories of being at the helm of your waka, sailing the ocean and looking to the sea and the sky for guidance?

Well, I saw something very unusual one day – there were hundreds and hundreds of birds alongside us but flying very low, just above the water. There were so many of them – godwits [kuaka]. People say they always fly high when they make their big journeys, but I saw that is not true. They know how to preserve their energy. There is less wind just above the water, so they were flying low before getting to land and being able to rest. You see a lot of things. But mostly, I just carry on and keep watching. You have to keep on course, otherwise you are liable to miss something. The further north we go, we keep an eye on different stars to tell us what latitude we are on and we mark where the sun rises. We know where the sun is supposed to be and we adjust ourselves to keep on course.

Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales, ride in Ngātokimatawhaorua in 1983. Photo/Supplied

What about making the waka? What’s your preferred material and methods?

Kauri, always kauri, if I can. The waka I made in Hawaii were from a soft wood and I don’t know if their condition now is very good. Kauri lasts and it is the easiest to work with, too. Some people have said to me, “You’re using a chainsaw, that’s cheating”, but I always tell them that our ancestors used the best tools they had, and I do, too. 

Unemployment and lower educational achievement remain a problem in the North. Do you hold out hope that if Ngāpuhi can settle their Treaty claim, there is a chance to make change?

I’m sick of them. I think Ngāpuhi are cursed. They can’t even agree with one another; something is wrong somewhere. The sooner the older ones go away, the better for Ngāpuhi. I worry about the younger people because it is tough for them. I don’t know what their future is. I have experienced myself not being well educated. But I may be different because I was determined, right or wrong, that I was going to make something of my life.

Busby in  Aurere. Photo/Clare de Lore/Listener

You have proven yourself as a man who can build bridges and read the oceans and the sky. Did you ever overcome your own educational obstacles and become a reader of books?

I had to have good eyes when I was bridge building and for carving. I don’t mind reading, but I was always a slow reader. And now I have macular degeneration; my eyes have had it.

Growing old has taken a toll on your health, apart from the eyes. How are you holding up?

It’s a funny thing, I went to one of my relations and she gave me some massage on my neck and knees and she gave me a teaspoon of honey. I actually had a good sleep and woke up feeling a little bit better than normal. That was a really big help to me. I have lived longest out of all my family. I am the last one left, and I am still looking after our people.

This article was first published in the February 16, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.